A 'Hardy' Christmas for our Book Group

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Our book group more often than not picks a classic to read over Christmas. This year we picked possibly the least Christmassy and most draining novel in a long time for our festive read – Jude the Obscure is not a book for the faint-hearted. So, when we met and discussed it a few days ago, it was great to find that everyone had enjoyed at least some aspects of it, and we had a great discussion.

Published as a novel in 1895 after prior serialisation, Jude caused a furore over it’s subjects of class and sex.  Its reception caused Hardy to give up writing novels, turning to poetry instead.

It tells the story of Jude Fawley, a young country lad with intellectual aspirations to somehow study at the university of Christminster (Oxford).  He buries his nose in his books after work as much as he can, but still one day manages to get trapped into marriage with Arabella, a former barmaid who hopes for betterment too. Jude’s aunt had warned him, ‘The Fawleys were not made for wedlock: it never seemed to sit well upon us.’

Arabella abandons him as soon as she realises that his books are his first love. This allows Jude to move to Christminster where he becomes a stone mason, and meets and falls for Sue Bridehead, his cousin.  Sue is studying at a training college to become a teacher, under the patronage of Mr Phillotson, her ageing suitor.  Meanwhile Jude’s ambitions are thwarted when he is rejected by academia. Sue is outraged by this:

‘It is an ignorant place, except as to the towns-people, artizans, drunkards, and paupers,’ she said, hurt still at his differing from her. ‘They see life as it is, of course; but few of the people in the colleges do. You prove it in your own person. You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’

Jude and Sue are madly in love, but Sue insists that it is kept platonic. They set up house together, but live as brother and sister. After a lapse on Jude’s part Sue decides to marry Phillotson after all, but detests him physically so much that she jumps out of the window rather than submit to him in the marital bed!  Phillotson, realises that she’ll never be his and releases her despite it costing him his own career advancement, and Sue goes back to Jude – both of them still being married.

I won’t summarise the story further, save to say that both Phillotson, and Arabella put in further appearances, and tragedy will visit Jude and Sue with grave consequences.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the only other Hardy novel I have read, back in the early days of this blog (review here). I loved Tess, so I was looking forward to Jude. I must admit I struggled with it at first, finding that it took ages to get going. I was mostly reading it before going to bed, and regularly fell asleep after a handful of pages. When I started reading it in the morning, and then Sue jumped out of the window, I was finally hooked. By the time the tragedy happened I was so immersed, I immediately jumped to conclusions and had to read the page three times – before turning over and finding out that a) I’d been wrong, and b) that the reality in the book of what happened was even more sad.  I read the last 150 pages in one go, and ended up drained by it.

At book group, Sue Bridehead initially got the lion’s share of the discussion.  We tried to decide whether she was a tease, frigid, or just flighty?  Regardless of the modernity of her thoughts on marriage, she kept Jude on tenterhooks with her commitment-phobia.  In contrast, although Arabella was also an arch manipulator, she was more straight-forward – there’s a lovely passage about Arabella later in the book, as she’s described by a family friend …

 ‘Well,’ said Tinker Taylor, re-lighting his pipe at the gas-jet. ‘Take her all together, limb by limb, she’s not such a bad-looking piece – particular by candlelight. To be sure, halfpence that have been in circulation can’t be expected to look like new ones from the Mint. But for a woman that’s been knocking about the four hemispheres for some time, she’s passable enough. A little bit thick in the flitch perhaps: but I like a woman that a puff o’ wind won’t blow down.’

We also felt for Phillotson, who did make a mistake in grooming and marrying Sue originally, but redeemed himself when he realised she detested him. He let her go, against the advice of his friends, and paid the price for his equally modern gesture.

On the issue of the class divide – ’twas ever thus, the majority of places at Oxford are still taken by pupils from independent schools. Jude was fated to remain ‘obscure’, an outsider.

We all marvelled at the mechanics of getting around in the late Victorian era.  In the first sections, Jude in particular did an awful lot of walking, journeys on foot of several miles were the norm.  Later everyone goes everywhere by train – fully embracing the improved transport arising from the industrial revolution.  Likewise the postal system was super efficient with post really taking just a day, (unlike today’s!).

Finally, local colour added to the reading for the novel is set in and around Oxford, Reading and Wantage, (but not Abingdon where we’re centred sadly); some of the landmarks mentioned are identifiable today.  Hardy’s descriptions of the countryside are always lyrical – often contrasting with the actions of the country folk who live in it.

Jude was originally serialised in twelve parts. The novel is split into six parts, each anchored geographically in one of the towns or at Christminster. My one quibble is that in each of the six parts, Jude moves, restarts his career, etc etc – this aspect was a little repetitive, but that’s small beer compared with the major themes.  All in all, Jude the Obscure was a great choice for discussion, and has renewed my enthusiasm for Hardy. (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – paperbacks available from Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics

0 thoughts on “A 'Hardy' Christmas for our Book Group

  1. AngelJem says:

    Because of course Jude the Obscure just screams Christmas?!?
    I saw a stage adaptation of this after reading it. Bizarrely I think it’s one of Hardy’s best reads…. so black but so engrossing. Thanks for the review.

    • gaskella says:

      In my defence, I didn’t say we picked a Christmas classic, just a classic to read at Christmas! We thought of Hardy – and this was the one we all wanted to read. 🙂

  2. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I love Jude the Obscure! But then I love Hardy’s writing, as you say so lyrical and that passage you quoted is a gem – ‘A little bit thick in the flitch perhaps’ is wonderful. I must get back to Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy this year. I started it a few years (!) ago and never got to the end. We read Hardy at school, so I’ve read most of his books and I think Jude is my favourite.

    • gaskella says:

      I am loving Hardy too Margaret. Personally I preferred Tess to Jude, but now my biggest quandary is which to read next? The Mayor of Casterbridge?

      • Juna says:

        Although it’s been a long time since I read it, I’d highly recommend The Mayor of Casterbridge, which has much to say about ambition and redemption for past sins. Your post makes me want to re-read Jude as well. I didn’t know the reception to this novel led Hardy to focus more on poetry, but I do remember some teacher or Professor saying that Hardy had hoped to be remembered mostly as a poet!

  3. Col says:

    This is one of the few Hardy novels I haven’t read. Teas is very much my favourite – I can’t believe any man could read Tess and not immediately want to take her away and look after her! Jude sounds much more challenging but I’ve got it on my shelves so I might well give it a go! Really enjoyed your review.

  4. Alex in Leeds says:

    I am so jealous of your book club! Jude wouldn’t be my first choice of reading at the end of the year but I love the fact you all wanted to dig into more Hardy. 🙂

  5. Alex says:

    Jude the Obscure over Christmas – yikes! It’s one of the most depressive and “heavy” books I’ve even read. Brilliant!… wrist-cutting material. I’d have recommended Far from the Madding Crowd, my favorite by him.

  6. Teresa says:

    As I think you know, Hardy is my favorite author. I can’t quite decide whether Jude or Tess is my favorite of his books. I’ve always said it was Tess (which I’ve read three times), but Jude seemed better on a second reading a few years ago.

    Sue is a particularly fascinating character–one of my favorite Hardy characters. I see her as a woman who exists in the wrong time and place, and because she’s out of sorts with her time, she ends up being out of sorts with herself, thus the seeming flightiness. The world didn’t have room for a Sue Bridehead, so Sue couldn’t figure out a way to live in the world without betraying who she was.

    For your next, Major of Casterbridge is good, and so is Far from the Madding Crowd. I have a soft spot for Return of the Native, but from what I can tell, it’s less universally appreciated among Hardy lovers. It also has a lot in common with Jude, so it might be one to put further down the list for now.

    • gaskella says:

      You’re more charitable to Sue than we were Teresa, I like your view of her very much. I will probably read TMoC next as I have a copy easily to hand, the others are buried somewhere.

  7. savidgereads says:

    This was almost voted as the book that AJ and I should read for Classically Challenged when we hit Hardy. I am slightly relieved we got Tess as I have heard this is one of the most depressing novels ever… and weirdly people think I would like it, do you think I would?

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